The Strange Case of Danny Szetela

Due to the exigencies of actually having a life, I missed the first half of the DC United - Heywood Jablowme (I think that was the name) match last night.

Interestingly, so did the entire city of Port of Spain, as that was quite literally the emptiest stadium I have ever seen, at any level. Age group dressage draws better than that.

After getting over the shock of seeing Snoop Dogg playing in the center of the defense for the Trinidadians, the first thing that stuck me was the appearance on a football pitch of one Daniel Szetela.

Fans will recall that DC used an allocation back in July (Dallas was first on the list but they passed) to pick up the former Racing Santander signee who spent most of the last two years on loan to Brescia. When no one over there had any interest in extending the relationship, and finding no other takers, Szetela did what all American players who have failed dismally overseas do: he signed with MLS.

Of course, this is the second time Danny has had to use MLS as a fallback.

Back in 2004, coming off of a strong showing in the U17 World Cup, a couple of British teams had made him offers (he's eligible for a Polish passport) and his future seemed bright indeed.

Unfortunately, Szetela's mother decided it would be really shrewd to try and start a bidding war for the kid by shopping each teams offer sheet.

A decent agent would have told them that they don't play that game over there, particularly for 17 year old kids from Passaic, New Jersey but, absent that, Szetela mere was shocked when both clubs responded by pulling their offers off the table and left the Szetelas holding nothing but a hotel bill.

So they flew back to the US, where young Daniel got another shock.

His roommate and best freind from Bradenton and the U 17's was a kid named Adu. You'll recall that MLS had let Freddy pick the team he was going to, which was of course DC United since it was close to the family home in Maryland.

Szetela, who had turned down a GanA offer before the '04 Superdraft because he was headed for fame and glory in the EPL, fully expected the same treatment as his pal, and anticipated moving back to New Jersey.

He was shocked and dismayed to discover that instead he was going into one of the infamous "MLS Draft Lotteries" and was even more surprised when, in a ceremony that for some reason was broadcast live on ESPN, Commissioner Garber, after dropping the ball with "Metrostars" on it that he apparently had jammed under his cuff (you think I'm kidding?) he pulled out one that said "Crew".

Danny was elated:

So Danny was off to Columbus where, because of their shared Polish roots and the fact that he was still a minor, Szetela ended up living in then-assistant coach Robert Warzycha's basement, eating dinner with the family and catching rides to practice.

In two weeks he went from being days away from living in London on a fat Premiership contract to camping out in a cellar in Columbus Ohio.

Meanwhile, his best bud Freddy was the toast of American soccer, packing stadiums from coact to coast, while Danny was munching kielbasa and pierogis and watching TV with the Warzycha clan.

It was a bad start.

It got better of course; his Mom and sister moved out to CBus, they bought a house (he was pulling in well over $100k) and he discovered that Ohio State University is one of the largest concentrations of beer and girls east of the Mississippi. All-in-all, he was pretty happy with he arrangement.

The problem then became the team, which was then coached by Greg "Zippy the Pinhead" Andrulis.

To say that Greg was clueless is like saying that the Atlantic Ocean is wet. He had no professional playing background and had come into the Crew to be the goalkeeper coach at a time when the goalkeeper was a guy named Friedel. Maybe you've heard of him. He needed some schmuck from Dayton to tell him how to play like Kanye West needs lessons in how to be a jerk.

Anyway, with a weak coach holding the whistle, the players ran the team and did pretty much whatever they wanted. They practiced when they felt like it, and didn't break a sweat too often even when they did. Fortunately, practices were short, so there was plenty of time for the tennis tournaments, cookouts and general partying which went on pretty much non-stop.

For his part, Andrulis felt the pressure to send Danny out there, so he appeared ten times that first year but otherwise he was was injured a lot, partied his ass off and learned pretty much jack squat about how to be a professional.

Fortunately, Sigi Schmid arrived in 2006.

Unfortunately, the Round Mound of Coaching takes a somewhat different view of just who is in charge of his teams. Put another way, the party was over.

Now when a new coach takes over, you expect a certain amount of player movement. In this case, Sigi didn't just clean house, he blew the damn thing up. And it wasn't because they were all lousy or that he just wanted his own guys instead.

Rather, his goal was to obliterate the previous team culture and the quickest and easiest way to do that was to ship everybody out. It was bloodletting on a massive scale. When he got done there were only four guys on the roster who had been there the previous season (and one of them was a surgery case who didn't get back on the field for two years).

To say that Szetela and Schmid didn't exactly see eye to eye would be a gross understatement.

Danny showed up looking for the party and found the Marine Corps. Danny figured he was top og and Sigi obliged by treating him like a dog.

Sigi told him what he wanted, Danny ignored him, Sigi simply shrugged and benched the kid. The more Danny resisted being coached, the farther down the bench he went. Danny sulked, Sigi ignored it, Danny sulked some more.

So when Szetela had a good showing at the U20 World Cup and some feelers started coming in from overseas, he couldn't get out of town fast enough and Sigi was more than happy to hold the door for him. There were no tearful goodbyes.

The story of his two years in Europe could be cut and pasted from the resume of dozens of other American players who opted to try thier luck in Europe: signed by a major club (Racing Santander in Spain), made a non-league appearance here and there, loaned out to lower division club (Serie B side Brescia Calcio), played on and off, scored one goal, team hires new manager, playing time dwindles to nothing, sent back when the loan expires, RS declines to re-sign, back to MLS.

As Loney would say: lather, rinse, repeat.

DC fans were generally excited by the pickup. They didn't give up much since it's doubtful the allocation would have been used otherwise and at 22 Danny is still young enough and talented enough that optimists (although they're a commodity in short supply around RFK these days) can see the value in, if nothing else, his considerable upside.

But a funny - or maybe not - thing happened when he showed up for the Red & Black. He vanished. He's been spotted so seldom that he's made Amelia Erhart look like Lindsay Lohan.

For most of his time with DC, not only has he not played, he hasn't even made the bench or the trip.

At first, the consensus was that the problem was "fitness", that he just needed to get in game shape.

The only problem with that theory would seem to be that Brescia was still playing until mid-June, and he was released and signed by DC by mid July.

So as the days and weeks and, now, months have gone by, that tale has lost whatever validity it may have had; a 22 year old elite athlete who was out of training for a month has now been with his team for 60 days and he hasn't got the gas to come off the bench on 70 minutes for a team in a dogfight for the playoffs and the coach's job?

Hell, there are 40 year old insurance salesmen you can get in shape faster than that. It's not like he's getting in shape by using a Total Gym three times a week and doing a lot of walking. He's working out with a professional soccer team every damn day.

In mid-August or thereabouts, cryptic bits and pieces of partial shreds of almost facts started leaking out from under the DCU door:

When asked, Soehn said things like: "we're monitoring his fitness"

Or when he doesn't make the roster for a match, Soehn would say it was "a coach's choice"

When Danny is cornered by a reporter, he says "It's more just between the team. I'd rather keep it between the team."

And in between the quotes there've been largely unconfirmed stories about Szetela missing practice, or Szetela refusing to put out in practice or Szetela pissing off his teammates with his attitude or Szetela being pulled aside for a lecture from one of the veterans.

Which brings us to last night in T&T.

As I said at the start, I didn't see the first half. Maybe the guy was the second coming of Frank Lampard. If so, I'm sorry I missed it.

What I did see - and others will probably disagree, which is why BS exists after all - is a guy who looked like he was out for a Sunday jog. When he wasn't losing the ball he spent his time making backpasses or, at best, square passes into the middle.

(Now granted if it was ME, I'd be making square passes to Gomez and Emilio too, but I'm not a former Wunderkind of American soccer. A little more is expected.).

Or being offside.

The one time you thought he was going to show something was when he got a beautiful flighted ball that met him just inside the area with nothing but keeper and net in front of him. He mishit it so badly that it made you cringe.

But the point here isn't to dump on the kid. The point here is to ask why?

Yes, he's "only" 22, although that's not exactly freshly hatched for a footballer, but he's been a professional for five years now, including two in Europe. It's not like he just wandered in from four years playing NCAA Division II.

I'm willing to bet that if you go back in the BS archives you'll find lots of people crowing excitedly about what a wonderful thing it was that he was going overseas to "develop".

But you'd be hard pressed to see much in the way of a "developed" mature, sophisticated professional in Daniel, at least not last night.

And maybe it was a one off. Maybe he'll come out next time and rip it up. I honestly hope so.

Because this is the kind of kid we don't get that many of in the US. When he briefly flirted with the idea of playing for Poland (it was what his parents wanted) the Polish coach sniffed "We have 200 players just like him"

I have no idea whether that's true or not. What I do know is that the US doesn't have 200 players just like him and we can't afford to lose the ones we've got.

Not much of anybody, least of all me, is ready to call the kid a bust. What you can say without fear of contradiction is that this was once a bright, promising young American talent who, at least on the face of it, seems to be going nowhere fast.